Office Depot Time Capsule

The store is a living dinosaur, and I like it

Have you shopped at an Office Depot lately? I bought Krazy Glue at one back in 2017, and I had to pick up some bubble wrap there in 2020. Otherwise, I’ve never been inside one to my recollection. It’s not a store I stroll into to look around and possibly impulse buy, like Best Buy, Michael’s, or Target. And it’s even more old-fashioned than Staples, its main competitor.

I decided to treat my local Office Depot as the subject of a photo essay, because I find it quite interesting. It’s pretty much the last of its kind, and when it disappears in the next few years, as is likely, the retail landscape will lose something.

Most locations are older and haven’t been renovated recently, so they have a slightly worn-out feel, kind of like whatever K-Marts still exist. The interior organization of the store is also very old-fashioned. Instead of aisles, there are these square, three-sided departments hugging the perimeter of the store. CompUSA, a computer and electronics store that went bankrupt in 2007, looked like this. Bed Bath & Beyond is the only living store I can think of that still uses this format. It brings me right back to buying Windows 98 software in big boxes with my dad in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

It’s hard to tell if the merchandise itself is old-fashioned, or if I’m just not used to seeing it. But it all feels like a 90s/00s time capsule to me. Look at the CD area. When was the last time you saw empty, blank CD cases for sale? I remember my dad’s stacks of music CDs and CD-ROMs, and that feels almost as distant today as the days when you saw cassette tape fluttering in the wind along the side of the road.

There was probably a time, however, when multiple companies would have been selling these supplies. All that’s left on these shelves is Verbatim and Maxell. When a previously huge category is down to one or two legacy manufacturers, you know it’s on the way out. Buy up blank CDs while you can, maybe.

An entire department is dedicated to binders. Infinite binders!

Need to restock the breakroom?

Then there’s the office chair and desk area in the back, in some ways the core of this type of store.

This brings back memories too. I remember lots of childhood trips to the Staples in Flemington, New Jersey, where I’d go play with the office chairs: trying them out, rolling around in them, sitting at one of the big desks and pretending to be a corporate bigwig. I remember my dad playing with the controls and making sure his chair had an adjustable back. Many years later, my dad took me to Staples to buy my own desk chair, once I was old enough to have my own computer at a real desk. And when I was in grad school in College Park, Maryland, I drove to the Staples in neighboring Greenbelt, and bought and assembled my own desk chair, which I still use today.

My wife and I recently bought a chair here, in fact. It made me wistful, because it’s very likely the last time I’ll ever buy one from a store like this. Next time, it will probably be either from Walmart or Target, or Amazon. My own kids will almost certainly not have that distinctive memory of exploring the chair-and-desk department in the office superstore. There probably won’t be office superstores. It’s funny how such an ordinary experience, nearly universal for kids of a certain age, now dates me as being from a certain time.

Here are some more photos of items that probably won’t really be sold in stores in a few more years. Office Depot almost feels like a prop house, full of accoutrements for building an office like it’s 1995. You almost think that somewhere in the storeroom there are still a few boxes of floppy disks, or a few CD-ROM drives. I wonder how long the oldest piece of merchandise in the store has been sitting there.

Because Office Depot is more a supply store than an electronics or computer store, there aren’t that many hints as to how dramatically the technology and work landscape have changed over the last 20 or 30 years. There are, however, a handful, which feel kind of incongruous. Like this banner hinting at permanent work-from-home arrangements, which might temporarily revive the office superstore segment.

I find this all interesting as a matter of nostalgia, but I also find it to be like living history. This store is a museum. It’s a relic of what was once a hugely mainstream retail concept, a compendium of a whole fading way of doing business and home offices.

As a society, we haven’t really found any way to catalog this kind of thing. You can’t archive it, and you can’t preserve it per se. The fact is, I miss this kind of shopping experience, where you could inspect a whole bunch of pretty similar but subtly different options, instead of just clicking “Amazon’s Choice.” I like the tactile element to it, and the way it engages the senses. I think most of us will miss it.

I also think it would be incredibly cool if somebody opened a theme park that consisted of dozens of exact recreations of stores throughout the decades, with the same stuff on the shelves and with the same signage, décor, and organization. Like a physical Wayback Machine for brick-and-mortar retail.

Until then, you can still shop at Office Depot.

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